Is Tim Ferris killing Main Street? Reviewing the Four Hour Workweek

Tim Ferris weaves a mixture of a self-promotional story and business strategies with the promise of working four hours a week. He counterpoises the four-hour workweek, with the forty hour workweek. In so doing, he unwittingly raises the question – Can entrepreneurial activity still contribute to economic growth and job creation?
The American distinction between Main Street (representing small business) and Wall Street (representing financiers and investors) offers a way to understand this question. It is a theme being played out in the Occupy Wall street, with many local campaigns being undertaken. In the wake of the financial crises, we have justifiably criticised Wall Street for making easy money, for trading nothing (i.e. paper) and for screwing up the world. Main Street in turn is the saviour, the engine of innovation and job creation. Yet, it is possible to create businesses that mimic the worst traits of Wall Street – no jobs, no real products, and no innovation – and dress it up as Main Street. This is my reading of The Four Hour Workweek – a manifesto to create personal gains, without the multipliers (e.g. economic growth, job creation) associated with small business.
Tim Ferris provides the scope for his book as follows:
“The vast majority of people will never find a job that can be an unending source of fulfillment, so that is not the goal here; to free time and automate income is.”

This scoping exercise is important to note, as Ferris is not denying that some people find their vocation in their job. The task of this self-help manual is thus not to speak to people who have found their vocation, but rather to those people stuck in routine 9-to-5 jobs that alienate them from following their dreams.
A mastery over time and automatic income are a tempting prospect. . It harks back to ideas of work leading to alienation, developed in Marxist literature, and experienced by many 9-to-fivers. The idea also finds fertile ground because we have been hardwired to work diligently for same company, and reap the rewards of a retirement package. Ferris thus promises an escape from the dreariness of an unfulfilling job, with the prospect of regular and easy money.
After all, many people are locked into a system that asks them to work for a lifetime to eventually receive a retirement package. Ferris calls this class of workers the Deferrers (he uses the letter “D” as a short hand to describe them). The problem is that these workers have limited options, may find that life  has passed them by or as most devastatingly shown (as a consequence of the financial crises) retirement plans are no longer secure.
Why should this be so, asks Ferris? Instead, he advocates a different approach that one can learn from the “New Rich” (NR is the shorthand he uses.) Ferris tempts the reader with anecdotes of mini-retirements, mastery over time and of course lots of money. In doing this, he is setting up the foundations for a set of strategies to become part of the New Rich. The bulk of the book discusses these strategies, using the acronym DEAL (Definition, Elimination, Automation, Liberation). Overall, the strategy can be summed up as being neither the boss nor an employee, but rather the owner. In simple terms – run a business, by first assessing demand, creating a product, recognising that the process can be automated and that the rest can be outsourced. This slideshow provides a good introduction to the idea of Deferrers and the New Rich.
[infobox title=” Book Review – The 4 Hour Workweek” pos=”left”]
Timothy Ferris. The 4-hour workweek: Escaping 9-5, Live Anywhere and Join the New Rich Published in 2007 by the Crown Publishing Group
Several friends told me The Four Hour Week is a must read, with stories of working on a beach and not having to slog many hours to make money. One of these friends, loaned me a copy of the book.  Out of curiosity, I spent an evening reading the book. It was a quick read, and initially I just thought I had heard all of these strategies for small business before and frankly better articulated in other books and websites. I regularly outsource tasks, simply because I usually get back high quality work, with a fair fee for workers. More importantly, as an independent public policy analyst I am reliant (and thankful) that clients outsource work to me. I however did not understand global outsourcing – especially for virtual workers – until reading this book, and it is a fascinating read. Technically it could work, to have an online publication focussed on economic transformation in South Africa being written by cheaply paid authors all over the world. Zapreneur is however meant to be a business that over times not only speaks about economic transformation, but actually does something practical and tangible. We are getting closer each day to doing just that.
Get a friend’s copy if you must read it. Personally, there is more hype than substance in the book, and other books cover the strategies in a better way.
The immediate image that comes to mind is of the entrepreneur as a mini multinational corporation.
Fastcompany captures this image perfectly in an article on what are called “Mom and Pop Multinationals”. The traditional mom and pop shop was located proverbially on Main Street, where hard work and personalised service were the cornerstone of a good business and the means to fulfil the aspirations of the family. Today, Mom and Pop shops often exist online, with them sourcing skills, customer service, production and every other conceivable input for their business in a fast growing sector of virtual workers.  Good for them we might conclude.
However, the seeming easiness of creating an outsourced company raises significant challenges for entrepreneurial activity, and its associated multipliers. For instance, it is today possible to create a business that employs no one. Similarly, it is possible to structure payments in ways that national governments simply cannot monitor, and consequently contributions to national economy are minimal for both taxes and jobs.
For workers and companies providing these services in developing countries it however provides an opportunity. Due to a combination of lower wages in the developing country and the buying power of developed countries currencies, outsourced companies in many developing countries savour the opportunities presented by globalisation. In these countries – South Africa included – these new forms of outsourcing offer prospects of employment, although often precarious employment. However, what they take down in the process are many long established companies in the developed world, and create systems of procurement that are global.
To illustrate – a manufacturing enterprise in South Africa would traditionally open a factory, employ people and source products competitively (and often locally). Today, with a good design and a flight to another country the entire production process can be outsourced, often at cheaper prices than are possible here.  Any conceivable sector of the economy could operate in this manner. A challenge to the vision of Main Street as the engine of economic growth and employment in a country arises. In fact, the businesses proposed by Ferris suggest that like Wall Street (and for that matter the financial sector in South Africa and every other country) it is possible to create wealth without the quid-pro-quo of economic growth and employment. The four hour workweek, may thus kill the prospect of the forty hour work week.
This lesson is vital to grasp – substantive policy changes in South Africa must be coupled with skilfull execution of business strategies by entrepreneurs. These are needed for Main Street to realise the expectations of a viable enterprise, which employs people and drives the economy. Without that, the prospect of a Four Hour Workweek will be available for a few – the 1% – , but for the remainder – the 99% – even getting four hours of work will be difficult.

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